The Best Advice I Can Give Any Digital Business Owner

Paul Boag

Whether you founded an agency, launched a digital app or are a freelancer, there is one piece of advice I would share with you all.

Since launching Boagworks three years ago, I have worked with founders of dozens of companies, from digital agencies of various sizes to freelancers and those running software as a service.

When people come to me, they are often at some type of turning point. Sometimes they are seeking to take their business to the next level, and other times they are at a crisis point.

What Is It You Really Want?

Often they come to me with a vision of what they want to achieve. Those I mentor, want to launch a product, grow their business or get ‘better’ clients. Whatever the case, I find myself asking the same question; why? Why, do you want to do whatever it is you are envisioning? What is the underlying reason?

Probably the most common example of this is; “I want to grow my business”. Different people mean different things when they say this. They might mean growth in the quality of clients, an increase in the number of employees or growth in revenue. But my response is the same; why?

You see, I find that most people do not truly understand their desires and motivations.

Will Your Dream Give You What You Really Want?

I recently worked with somebody who had been running an agency for years but desperately wanted to launch a product. I asked why they were so desperate to start a product. They answered that they wanted more financial security, to be able to work on what they wanted to work on, and not have to deal with client issues.

It is true that done right, launching a product can help with all of these things. Having large numbers of customers paying a small monthly fee can provide a more predictable cash flow. Equally, presuming you can bootstrap the business, you can build whatever you want with no clients interfering.

But if you make mistakes you will have none of those things. You will have investors dictating the direction of the product and a constant battle to secure enough paying customers or further investment.

However, more importantly, there are many ways of achieving those aims of financial security, control and freedom from clients. For example, working in-house for the right company can give that.

Stop Fixating on a Single Solution

The problem is we tend to fixate on the solution, not the underlying problem we are trying to solve. Say for example you are miserable in your job working in-house. You may dream of being a freelancer so you can escape from your job. That might indeed work, but I know many freelancers who work harder than they ever did in a full-time job. Also, a different job elsewhere might be just as good.

Then there are agency owners. They talk about growing their business, but in fact, there is usually an underlying need. Often it is either a financial need or a desire to build their reputation. But there are other ways of fulfilling those needs than getting big-name clients (who are often very demanding) or adding more employees (that result in more mouths to feed).

It is Okay to Admit Your True Needs

The trouble is, admitting that what you want is more money or to be looked up to by others is hard. Somewhere along the line, our industry has come to look down on things like that. We are supposed to want to build something for the greater good or ‘put a dent in the universe’. But why? Can’t we have more modest desires? I don’t want to change the world, and although I want to help others, I don’t necessarily feel the need to do that in my job.

Being more selfish than that, is okay. Having more simple needs is okay. You only need to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to know that financial security and a comfortable life are pretty fundamental to everybody. They are not bad desires.

Once you understand and admit your real motivations, everything changes. Once you know those things, you can explore all of the options available to you, not just the one solution you have fixated on.

It Is Okay for Our Needs to Change and Career Evolve

Then there is the fact that what we want will change through our careers. Our circumstances will change as we find a partner, have a family, buy a house etc. All of these things shape our lives and therefore what we need from our careers.

Take my case. I established the agency Headscape with my friends Chris Scott and Marcus Lillington and worked there happily for 13 years. We were all clear what we wanted from the business. We wanted a business that facilitated our lives and so resisted the urge to build the company too large.

However, over time my circumstances changed. We started homeschooling our son, and so I wanted more flexibility than the agency could provide. But I also had increased costs that a small agency wasn’t best suited to cover. In the end, it made sense to move on.

From the outside, it may have looked like a step back in my career. After all, I walked away from a successful agency that was well known and respected. But being an independent consultant just made more sense for achieving my personal needs.

In fact, it has proved less pressured, more profitable and allowed me to grow my reputation among my peers.

People Will Do Fine Without You. Don’t Let That Hold You Back.

But what about my cofounders at Headscape? Was my decision unfair on them? Maybe you have people reliant on you, who you feel you will be letting down if you go in a different direction?

Well possibly. But I have a shockingly harsh truth that I had to learn the hard way; you are not as indispensable as you think. At least I wasn’t when I left Headscape.

For years, I put off leaving the company because I feared I would be letting Marcus and Chris down. I thought Headscape was built on my reputation. I thought it would flounder without me. Instead, it thrived. I would go as far as saying that with me out of the way, it allowed the other two co-founders to step up in a way they could not with me around.

Also, if I am honest, I think that was just an excuse anyway. A reason to avoid facing the uncertainty of change and the unknown.

It Is Time to Be Honest

So what is my point for this somewhat self-referential post? My point is that we need to learn to see things clearly when it comes to our careers. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we truly want from our careers and stop making excuses for not doing it.

Of course, it is easy for me to say that and difficult for you to do. But if you find yourself at a crossroads in your career, I would encourage you to find a friend or colleague to discuss it with. Somebody outside of the situation who can maybe help you to see your motivations more honestly.

Thanks to PopTika for allowing me to use this image.